South Korea Dec. 11 joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a step that could bring fresh controversy to the contested Bush administration program. South Korea’s participation comes as it plans to move forward with a technology that some say could help it develop nuclear weapons or violate a 1992 denuclearization agreement between it and North Korea. It also takes place as Washington presses Pyongyang to follow through on a 2007 commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Initiated by President George W. Bush in 2006, GNEP seeks to develop new nuclear technologies, particularly for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and new international nuclear fuel arrangements. Administration officials claim that these efforts will reduce nuclear waste and decrease the risk that an anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear proliferation. Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of spent fuel reprocessing technologies, be prohibitively expensive, fail to ease waste disposal challenges significantly, and lack any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed. Congress recently slashed funds for the program.
Nonetheless, GNEP continues winning international adherents. South Korea, the world’s sixth-largest nuclear energy producer, is the group’s 19th member. These members have taken steps to craft a common agenda, holding their first steering committee meeting Dec. 19 to lay out the group’s course for 2008.
South Korea’s membership in GNEP has raised eyebrows because of South Korea’s decade-old research and development of a form of spent fuel reprocessing called pyroprocessing. South Korea claims it is interested in the technology to help cope with growing piles of spent fuel. In a December 2007 atomic energy road map paper, Seoul said that it aims to have a pilot pyroprocessing facility completed by 2012 and a semi-commercial facility in place by 2025.
The South Korean approach, called the Advanced Spent Fuel Conditioning Process (ACP), involves taking spent fuel from nuclear reactors, turning it into a metal, and dissolving it into molten salt. Using electrolysis, part of this material is then separated from some of the longest-lived fission products and reformed into a new fuel. The resultant product contains not only plutonium but also uranium and other materials, including some with significant radioactivity. In this way, the process differs from current reprocessing techniques, such as the PUREX process used in France, that use acid and organic solvents to separate relatively pure plutonium from other elements in the spent fuel.
According to some Bush administration officials, the differences mean that pyroprocessing is not as prone to diversion to a nuclear weapons program as conventional spent fuel reprocessing. Those conventional methods have provided the plutonium that has been used in many of the world’s nuclear explosives, including that of North Korea. In particular, the fact that pyroprocessing produces a fuel containing considerably radioactive fission products is seen to make it less valuable for weapons and a deterrent to seizure by terrorists. By comparison, plutonium alone lacks sufficient radioactivity to be considered as “self-protecting” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Pyropocessing is not reprocessing because it does not produce pure plutonium,” one U.S. official told Arms Control Today Jan. 3. Another official said Jan. 4 that the Departments of Energy and State had formally agreed in 2002 and in 2007 that pyroprocessing should not be considered as reprocessing under U.S. regulations, statutes, and agreements, which ban U.S. assistance to foreign reprocessing efforts.
Some independent studies, however, have said that the product of pyroprocessing would fall short of the IAEA self-protection standard. Moreover, outside analysts and previous U.S. government reports have said that although the technology itself may mark an improvement over current reprocessing methods, such a system would have other problems that could lead to weapons proliferation.
For example, they have said a program would train experts in plutonium chemistry and metallurgy and the use of hot cells and other appropriate facilities that could be used to recover plutonium for weapons. The system could also be reconfigured for more standard reprocessing.
A 1992 study for the Energy and State Departments said that appropriate safeguards had yet to be designed for such facilities and that it would be even more difficult to account for nuclear materials in them than in current reprocessing facilities. But an Energy Department official demurred from that judgment, telling Arms Control Today Jan. 4 that “we don’t agree that you can’t safeguard that technology.” The official said that “we are not in a position to dictate what they [South Korean officials] do” but that “we are not aiding and abetting” any problems.
South Korea has been negotiating with the United States and the IAEA over a safeguards agreement for a partially constructed, pilot pyroprocessing facility but has yet to conclude a pact. Despite regular pleas from South Korean officials at semi-annual meetings, U.S. officials have maintained significant restrictions on Seoul’s ability to test the ACP fully. They have only allowed South Korean scientists to participate on a case-by-case basis in joint pyroprocessing experiments at U.S. laboratories. In South Korea, scientists have been restricted to using fresh fuel, which does not contain plutonium, or to the step of the process that turns spent fuel into metal, so as not to gain access to means of separating plutonium. Under a nuclear cooperation agreement between Seoul and Washington, the United States must approve any use of the low-enriched uranium it supplies as fuel to South Korean nuclear reactors.
Moreover, another Energy Department official said that a significant guarantee that South Korea would not separate pure plutonium was its signing of the GNEP statement of principles. Under these, participants agree to refrain from separating pure plutonium.
“This is a further reaffirmation by South Korea that they will be in strict compliance with their international obligations,” the official told Arms Control Today Jan. 4. “It’s the power of voluntary affirmation.”
Still, the issue of whether pyroprocessing should be treated as akin to traditional reprocessing is far from settled in the U.S. government. One U.S. official acknowledged that some colleagues are “wringing their hands over whether or not this constitutes reprocessing” and said the issue is unlikely to be tackled head-on until Washington and Seoul begin negotiating a new nuclear cooperation agreement, likely later this year. The current agreement is set to expire in 2014.
Some U.S. officials fear that the pyroprocessing program could make it easier for Seoul to develop nuclear weapons. South Korea had a nuclear weapons program during the 1970s but discontinued it later that decade under U.S. pressure. (See ACT, October 2004. ) In 2004, Seoul also admitted that two decades earlier it had conducted experiments in separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. (See ACT, December 2004. )
Some officials also worry that the program could represent a setback to the 1992 North-South denuclearization agreement at a sensitive time in the effort to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The 1992 pact says that the two Koreas “shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” Although North Korea has violated the agreement, Seoul has claimed to continue to adhere to it in hopes that Pyongyang will later abide by its strictures.
More broadly, South Korea’s admission to GNEP has raised further questions about whether the program is adhering to its initial goals. The Bush administration launched GNEP in February 2006, portraying it in part as a practical means of reinforcing the president’s call two years earlier to halt the spread of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities to new countries. Like spent fuel reprocessing facilities, enrichment facilities can provide either fuel for nuclear power or fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Yet, the September 2007 statement of principles appeared to move away from that stance, indicating that countries who joined GNEP “would not give up any rights” to enrichment or reprocessing and that the initiative intended to “develop and demonstrate, inter alia, advanced technologies for recycling spent fuel for deployment in facilities that do not separate pure plutonium.” (See ACT, October 2007. )
GNEP partners held their first steering committee meeting Dec. 19, adopting a work plan calling for two more such meetings this year and a ministerial-level executive committee meeting late this year. The meetings would be timed so that the ministerial-level gathering would be presented with the initial results of two working groups, which will be studying issues of nuclear infrastructure and reliable fuel services. The steering committee named Edward McGinnis, a U.S. deputy assistant energy secretary, as chairman of the group, along with vice chairmen from China, France, and Japan.
Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.
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